environment

A rousing speech to a silent room

While Dunedin’s proposed fossil mine at Foulden Maar was capturing headlines, an extraordinary welcome speech from Mayor Dave Cull to miners at a mineral forum got less attention. Farah Hancock reports.

It was a rousing speech, made to a silent room. Outside the building protestors chanted. Their arms, all except the person who had super-glued their hands to the doors, were linked to bar entry to the conference venue.

Attendees who made it through the front doors arrived at 6am before the protestors with their placards and glue turned up. Late delegates were escorted to another entrance. Others waited to enter.

Once in the conference room, away from chanting protestors and calls for renewable energy, an end to coal, and to stop the mining of Foulden Maar, the guests still found themselves the subject of disapproval.

As climate emergency declarations are signed by local councils the world over, the mining industry delegates at the Minerals Forum learnt even mayors of a city built on mining don’t think much of fossil fuel exploration.

Dunedin’s Mayor Dave Cull said his welcome speech, which circulated social media afterwards to great acclaim, received polite applause “as you would expect”.

He had chosen to give the speech despite calls for him to boycott the conference.

At the time it was late May. Cull was under fire for allowing the Town Hall to be used for the forum, and for providing a letter of support for Plaman Resources' proposal to turn fossils into pig food. By the time the conference was held, he had sent a 'please explain' letter to the company, who he said failed to mention fossils in their presentations to the council, and had asked for his letter of support to be set aside.

Plaman Resources, who had been listed on the programme, had pulled out of the event.

Cull said he warned the conference organisers he would be saying things the organisers and attendees wouldn’t like.

“Afterwards they said they didn’t realise how much they wouldn’t like it.”

Fossil fuel exploration an ‘immoral folly’

Cull’s welcome speech was anything but welcoming.

“I’ve taken this opportunity to welcome you and this conference to Dunedin – not because I support all of the various plans and projects that will be promoted here, but so you can hear why some of those plans are not welcome here.

“So, to be clear, if you’re promoting fossil fuel exploration, extraction and exploitation – and especially its expansion – then understand you are at odds with this community and my council that represents it.”

He ended by calling fossil fuel exploration and exploitation a “dangerous and immoral folly”.

Asked if he could have heard a pin drop during the speech, Cull said the room “was rather quiet”. He puts this down to people listening.

Climate emergency and a moral mandate

Cull pointed out to the attendees that the location they chose for their conference was threatened by climate change.

Dunedin has more houses than any other New Zealand city less than 50cm above the spring high tide mark. Almost 3000 homes face a real threat of sea level rise.

As well as floods, there’s fire. Predictions made in a recent paper from SCION modelling the effects of climate change estimate by 2090 the days of the year when the fire risk is high or extreme will increase by 209 percent for Dunedin.

Time spent in drought could double, warmer temperatures could cause more algal blooms in lakes, as well more pests such as carp and weeds. Storm intensity will likely increase.

Cull was the first person to sign a local government leaders' climate change declaration calling for a rapid transition to low carbon.

Last week it joined 500 other councils worldwide and several in New Zealand in declaring a climate emergency.

The city’s target to reach net zero by 2050 has been brought forward to 2030.

These measures, and Cull’s speech, come from what he sees as a moral mandate to protect the health of the community, rather than businesses.

He told the room communities were their responsibility too.

“I suggest the beneficiaries of business and industry – you and your shareholders - are responsible to the communities your industries work in and affect.

“We don’t have any right to trade in our children’s and grandchildren’s futures just to make a quick dollar now.”

Leaving the job

Cull, who has been Dunedin’s mayor for nine years, is not standing in the next elections. He said he’s turning 70 next year.

“My family is asking if in our lifetimes they’ll see a little bit more of me.”

Would he have given the same speech if he wasn’t leaving the job? Yes, he said.

“I felt I had an obligation, almost a mandate from my community.”

Dunedin City Council is one of 11 councils to have declared a climate emergency. The others include Environment Canterbury, Nelson City Council, Christchurch City Council, Kāpiti District Council, Auckland Council, Wellington City Council, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, Porirua City Council, Hutt City Council, and Queenstown Lakes District Council.

The Minerals Forum website said this year's event was a success, but doesn't say when, or where, the next one will take place.

Dave Cull's full welcome speech is reproduced with permission below.

Good morning.

I’ve taken this opportunity to welcome you and this conference to Dunedin – not because I support all of the various plans and projects that will be promoted here, but so you can hear why some of those plans are not welcome here.

So to be clear, if you’re promoting fossil fuel exploration, extraction and exploitation – and especially its expansion – then understand you are at odds with this community and my Council that represents it.

Of course, it hasn’t always been thus. Dunedin is a city built on mining – gold mining. And gold mining remains important to Dunedin today.

OceanaGold’s Macraes mine, most of it is actually in the Waitaki District, is New Zealand’s largest gold mine, producing around 200,000 ounces last year.

OceanaGold has its base in Dunedin, and contributes over $80 million to regional GDP, employing over 500 staff.

And I acknowledge that over the years we were a city reliant on a good deal of fossil fuel energy. Unfortunately we still are.

But while gold mining has been important to Otago for over 150 years, the community’s attitude to fossil fuels has changed completely over that time.

That’s because major negative impacts of climate change, thanks to humanity’s increased use of fossil fuels, are happening, in full view, around the world – across New Zealand, and particularly acutely here in Dunedin.

A higher frequency and intensity of rain events poses the most immediate risk and potential impact here – we’ve had several major flooding events in Dunedin in recent years with massive financial, physical and emotional impacts.

In the medium to longer term, sea level rise (and thus rising groundwater) will further increase the risk and potential impact to low-lying areas like South Dunedin – which has some 2,700 homes less than 50cm above the spring high tide mark – more than in any other city of New Zealand.

And those impacts are not just physical, infrastructural and financial – the people outside are just the visible tip of the iceberg of concern, distress and anxiety about the future – that is part of climate change’s toll on people’s physical and mental health.

The situation is urgent – indeed critical – for human society, for human health, and therefore for the economy.

That’s one of the main reasons why Dunedin has become a city with a strong track record of recognising and responding to the causes and effects of climate change.

So the people outside those doors are expressing the overwhelming view of this community and my Council.

In Dunedin, we are now having to make incredibly hard decisions about how to protect our communities from flooding, coastal erosion and sea level rise, because of decades of inaction by governments – local, central and international - and the fossil fuel industry.

This inaction has not been about scientific and evidential uncertainty, rather it is a result of the undermining of healthy public policy by the powerful influence of vested interests - the fossil fuel industry.

But that harmful influence can no longer be tolerated. That is why the Dunedin City Council – and the University of Otago for that matter – has divested our shares from fossil fuel exploration, extraction and exploitation.

As city leaders, we have a legislative, as well as a moral mandate, to protect and promote the health and wellbeing of our citizens. I am responsible to my community – not to business however many people they employ.

And I suggest the beneficiaries of business and industry – you and your shareholders - are responsible to the communities your industries work in and affect.

We don’t have any right to trade in our children’s and grandchildren’s futures just to make a quick dollar now.

That’s why I was the first signatory to the Local Government Leaders’ Climate Change declaration, calling for a precautionary approach with a rapid transition to low carbon, and supporting investments in renewable energy.

Dunedin has set its own target to become net carbon zero by 2050, and in recent years I and my Council have consistently opposed deep sea oil and gas exploration and extraction in New Zealand waters.

To protect the wellbeing of present and future generations from climate catastrophe, we know that further exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels is a dangerous and immoral folly, and incompatible with human survival and wellbeing.

I am told that as well as discussing traditional mining areas such as coal, this Forum will also be genuinely discussing climate change and sustainability, so that people can have informed debate.

I really do hope that is the case, and I look forward to contributing to that.

However, I think you will now be under no illusions about which side of the debate I and this city have landed on.

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